Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Zero Balance by Ashley Fontaine

“Revenge, at first though sweet, bitter ere long back on itself recoils.”

–        John Milton, Paradise Lost. 

“Jury selection for the trial of Olin Kemper, former managing partner of the Phoenix based accounting firm, Winscott & Associates, is scheduled to begin Monday at the Yarkema County Courthouse. Mr. Kemper is accused of the murder of Gina Milligan thirty-three  years ago in Summerset. His arrest last year for this local, legendary case has catapulted Summerset into the national spotlight, filling the hotels and restaurants located in and around this tiny berg to well beyond their capacity, as news crews from all over the United States have descended upon this normally quiet town like a horde of hungry locusts. Roger Clanton and Nicolas Rancliff, lead attorneys of Mr. Kemper’s dream team of lawyers hailing from Scottsdale, refused to answer reporter’s questions moments ago as they entered the courthouse, but inside sources told us that Mr. Clanton and Mr. Rancliff filed a change of venue request due to the notoriety of this case and their concerns about obtaining a fair and impartial jury from the pool of local citizens.

National legal analysts are divided on their opinions as to whether or not Judge Marshall Hall will grant a change of venue, as well as the odds on Mr. Kemper taking the stand in his own defense. Key prosecution witness, Mr. Robert Folton, who was originally charged as an accomplice with Mr. Kemper, already pled guilty and, in exchange for his testimony against Mr. Kemper, was given five years probation for his part in the case.

The debates on these issues, along with Mr. Kemper’s guilt or innocence, are just as heated between lifelong residents of this close knit community, which has caused an invisible line of stark contrasts separating longtime friends and close family members on each side.

Stay tuned for our continuing, live coverage of this trial, beginning Monday at 8:00 A.M. This is Jan Patakee reporting for Channel Six News.”  

* * * * 

“That’s a wrap guys. Make sure you include the video clips from Kemper’s bond hearing as well as the security footage of the courthouse from this afternoon. Oh, and don’t forget that picture of Gina!” Jan said, barking the orders to her camera crew as she tossed her microphone over to her lead assistant, Tony. She stomped quickly in her four-inch stilettos back to the relative comfort of the news van and plopped down in the front seat, slamming the door quickly in her attempt to keep the fire brick oven air from sneaking inside with her. She flipped open her compact and assessed the damage the searing heat had done on her makeup, and cursed herself once again for taking this job in Arizona over the one offered to her in Mississippi. Then again, if she were in Mississippi right now, she would be a slimy pile of sweat, makeup and hairspray from all the humidity, so maybe Arizona wasn’t too bad after all, since all the heat was doing was making her skin feel like dried out sandpaper.

In the two years that Jan had been an on the scene reporter for Channel Six, she had begged, borrowed and occasionally broken a small law or two in her attempts to be the first to break a big story. Up until nine months ago, when the news broke about Olin Kemper’s arrest and the huge shakeup at Winscott, she had thought herself doomed to cover the boring, blasé life of Phoenix and its abundantly rich and snooty citizens.

Out of all the mundane reports she’d covered back then, the ones that were the worst involved the overly plasticized, hoity toity society wives that perched themselves high upon their gilded thrones as they perused the lowly commoners beneath them with their Botox-frozen eyes, barely able to see over their inflated tire-lips. On more than one occasion she had forced herself to walk away rather than spend the night in jail for popping one of them in the face after particularly brutal comments about her ethnic heritage from a few of the nastier hags reached her burning ears. Of course, their faces were so full of injectable chemicals she doubted they would have felt a thing anyway.

All of that changed the day she was the first one to hit the airwaves with the news of Olin’s arrest since one of her drinking buddies, Tiffany Hemscott, happened to work as a minority partner at Winscott.

Jan was savvy enough to understand during those first few minutes of conversation with Tiffany that this was going to be an explosive story, and quite possibly shove her into the national spotlight (and maybe the global one as well.) if she played her cards right and continued to stay one step ahead of the other reporters by becoming the new best friend, rather than just an occasional wine taster, with Tiffany. She knew her well enough to know that a few glasses of Pinot were enough to loosen Tiffany’s tongue, and made sure that they went out at least twice a week to the bar down the street from Channel Six for the latest insider scoop on Winscott.

Jan finished her touchup and snapped her compact shut. Glancing around, she realized that neither Tony nor her idiotic camera crew dorks had made it back in the van, so she reached over and blared the horn several times. They needed to get moving to get this footage edited and ready for the evening news. After her last honk, Tony slid open the side door and everyone piled in, with Tony jumping up front into the driver’s seat. He smiled over at her, his dark brown eyes dancing with feigned excitement, and did his best impression from Driving Miss Daisy; “Yes ma’am! We is ready!”

Jan cocked her head and released one of her trademark evil smirks at him, her overly bleached pearly whites shining in the sun, and said, “Let’s go boys. I have a national viewing audience that is just dying to see my smiling face as I report on this case!”

Tony fired up the van and the glorious cool air blew Jan’s thick, raven hair from her face. She picked up her cell to call their producer and let him know they were on their way back, but before she touched the screen, it lit up with an incoming call from him. “Okay, so Jason has E.S.P.,” Jan quipped to Tony as she answered. “Hey Jason, I was just about to call you. We are on our way back.”

“Change of plans, J.P. Just have Tony upload what you have already and send to me. You won’t have time to make it back to the station before cutoff. You need to head up to Robert Folton’s ranch off of Highway 93. Now.”

The tone of Jason’s voice made the adrenaline immediately jolt through Jan’s system. She recognized it from numerous other occasions when a breaking story was about to unfold. She motioned for Tony to pull over and put her phone on speaker as she set it down on the console so she could grab her notebook. Barely containing the excitement in her voice, she replied, “What’s the lead, Jason?”

“We just heard through our contact in Summerset that a search is currently underway for Robert. Apparently, he left Monday on horseback to survey his herd and hasn’t returned, or contacted his family, although he promised his wife he would return yesterday. She is frantic that he is a day late and contacted the Summerset Police Department, which is now spearheading the mounted search and rescue.”

Jan could hardly write as Tony had immediately sped back up and headed down the rough road towards the outskirts of Summerset. Still trying to jostle words down while Tony drove, Jan asked “Jason, who else knows this?” hoping and praying that the answer was what she wanted to hear.

“Only us, so let’s keep it that way. Get there as fast as you can and set up for a live feed. This could be the story of the year,” Jason barked, quickly disconnecting from the call. Jan let her huge, toothy grin spread across her darkly tanned face as she looked over at Tony and said “Punch it!”


Chapter 1:

Audra-Dreams Unleashed

I woke up from my restless slumber completely encased in a cold, damp sweat that caused my thin silk nightgown to adhere to my soaked skin like wet tissue paper. I tried to recall whether or not I cranked the air conditioner down to a cool 70 degrees before I crawled into bed earlier, since my bedroom suddenly felt like a sweltering steam room. Slowly, as not to jostle the clinging wetsuit any more than necessary, I glanced to my left to the nightstand to make sure my fan was still blowing on me, and to my surprise it was. Good grief, the middle of April and my body is acting like I just finished running a marathon in July in some humidity laced tropical jungle.

My eyes closed briefly while I listened for the slight noise of the air conditioner hoping that it was just on the fritz, rather than my sudden combustion and subsequent meltdown stemming from internal sources. Unfortunately, I knew the latter was the answer as the air conditioner hummed quietly in the darkness around me.

A deep, heavy sigh escaped my lips into the lonely silence of my room. Purr Baby, who was curled into a tight little ball on the pillow next to me, twitched slightly and began to emit a low rumble from her furry white chest. A brief grin danced across my lips at that familiar sound, relishing the calming effect Purr Baby’s presence always seemed to have on me, even during my darkest moments over the years. My grin became a full-fledged smile as I realized that I would have gone stark raving mad had it not been for that soft pile of fur next to me during the last tumultuous eight years of my life. It was uncanny how at times she intuitively sensed my moods and would gently appear at my side, quietly purring as she rubbed her soft head on my legs. It was almost as if she was letting me know that she was there for me when I felt so lost and alone.

Cat lover for life, no doubt about it.

Sweat dripping down me like I just sprayed myself with a water hose, I closed my eyes once again and tried to steer my thoughts to all things cold: glaciers, ice cubes, the North Pole, ice skating, but to no avail. At the beginning of my sufferings from these stifling explosions of body heat three weeks ago, I assumed I was in the early stages of menopause. I was pushing 40 and the women in my family tended to go through the change early, so I reluctantly went to my gynecologist seeking relief of the annoying symptoms. When Dr. Kidson called me back three days after my initial appointment and happily informed me in her best perky voice that my hormone levels were completely normal and that I had many child bearing years left, I immediately knew the cause. My vividly ominous dreams, broken slumber and sweat surges were brought on from external sources of stress and not from a lack of hormonal balance.


Since my body wasn’t responding to thoughts of cold and continued to exude copious amounts of sticky liquid and my heart pounded heavily in my chest, I tried desperately to focus my attention on the rhythmic breathing of Purr Baby. My mind refused to cooperate, becoming a racetrack, and my thoughts careened around the corners like an Indy Car driver zooming around high on cocaine. I gave up trying to corral them and just let them run wild, staring silently at the ceiling.

I had never been a heavy sleeper, even in my youth. The subject of my sleep habits was a topic of discussion that my mother loved to share with others. She would dramatically recall what a difficult child I had been to raise, and that my ridiculous slumber schedule was the reason her youth fled so quickly. “That girl never allowed me a full night's rest until she was six.” she would say, her hands flitting about her head. That storyline usually segued into why she never bore any more children, since her lack of rest would surely have pushed her into an early grave.

My parents: I finally reconnected with them after Gina’s funeral following years of keeping them at arm’s length. Even before the loss of the baby and my “promotion” to equity partner, our relationship had dwindled dramatically, starting when I entered college. Even though I was their only child, my parents tended to focus more upon their own agendas. My father’s medical practice grew by leaps and bounds, and my mother spent her time split between shopping with her friends for their overpriced couture at Biltmore Fashion Park, or flying off to some luxurious vacation destination with her friends. I became nonexistent to my father when he realized that my talents were miles away from anything to do with bodily functions or medicine, especially when I began to display a real knack for math and finances at an early age. And of course, my mother could not comprehend why I shunned the upper elite society that I was raised in, preferring to keep my head shoved in books. To me, crunching numbers while my head was buried in a book rather than underneath the bright fluorescent lights of the local boutiques that she loved to frequent was much more exciting. It was beyond her limited vision to understand why I wanted to work in a field that had mostly been dominated by men, and not focus on finding a rich, suitable husband to settle down with. By the time I was awarded a full scholarship to Arizona State to the highly coveted W.P. Carey School of Business, my parents were barely able to muster any excitement for me. Only sheer determination to put on a show for their friends allowed any sort of feigned enthusiasm upon my graduation with honors and acceptance to Harvard College of Business. When my mother spoke about her “career-oriented daughter” at the society events she inevitably dragged me to, I could tell it pained her.

For the first few weeks after our reunion, things were a bit strained between us all, especially as the news stories went from being local to national. Reporters from around the country hounded them for interviews about me, the “Warrior of Winscott” as one headline labeled me. My parents’ aversion to talking about me actually ended up being a good thing during that time, as they never once granted an interview. I knew, however, that the reasons for their denial to all the vultures did not stem from a familial protective vibe over me; it stemmed from a sense of shame over the fact that I had been raped and kept it hidden from them for so long. Throw in the fact that they feared being asked, “Gee, Dr. & Mrs. Tanner, in five years you hadn’t physically seen your daughter, even though you only lived 20 miles away?” It didn’t really matter what the reasoning behind their perpetual silence with the media was, really; I was just glad that they kept quiet, and that at least we were working on being a family once again. We did so in our own quiet, snail paced way. I was just now coming to terms with the realization that I had spent most of my adult life trying to excel and obtain accolades from not only my employer, but also my less than interested parents, and that and determination to succeed killed my child and almost cost me my life.

Staring at the empty space above my bed, I blinked twice as I tried to adjust my eyes to the darkness around me, knowing that sleep would not descend upon me anytime soon. I was accustomed to waking up to uncontrolled images swirling through my head after I lost the baby years ago. Back then, my tendency to pop awake during the wee hours of the night began as I experienced unsettling dreams that centered on disjointed visions of me hovering over an empty crib, arms aching as I frantically searched through piles of blue blankets for my son; or suddenly shooting straight up out of bed to the haunting sounds of the muffled, distant cries of my unborn

child, yet unable to find the location of his feeble voice. My hands would involuntarily caress my flat stomach while I sobbed.


  1. I love how you start the story off with an action scene.

  2. "on the scene" should be hyphenated. Ninth paragraph has a sentence where the first letter is not capitalized.

  3. Great start, can't wait to read the rest of it.

  4. not feelin it